Handbook on the Economics of Crime
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Handbook on the Economics of Crime

Edited by Bruce L. Benson and Paul R. Zimmerman

While few economists analyzed criminal behaviour and the criminal justice process before Gary Becker’s seminal 1968 paper, an enormous body of economic research on crime has since been produced. This insightful and comprehensive Handbook reviews and extends much of this important resulting research.
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Chapter 16: The Economics of Capital Punishment and Deterrence

Paul R. Zimmerman


* Paul R. Zimmerman INTRODUCTION Economic research into the potential deterrent effect of capital punishment in the USA began with the seminal contributions of Isaac Ehrlich (1975a, 1977a). Ehrlich considered the issue from both a theoretical and an empirical perspective based upon Becker’s (1968) formalization of the economic theory of crime. Using both national time-series (Ehrlich, 1975a) and state-level cross-sectional data (Ehrlich, 1977a), Ehrlich found a statistically significant deterrent effect from executions. Not surprisingly, these findings – which were carried even outside the academic arena1 – unleashed a fervent backlash. Indeed, virtually all aspects of Ehrlich’s studies were the target of criticism by economists, sociologists, criminologists and statisticians (among others).2 Criticism of Ehrlich’s work coalesced in a 1978 report issued by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS),3 which ultimately concluded that there was insufficient evidence to conclude that executions deterred murders. Despite other studies that supported Ehrlich’s findings,4 and the fact that Ehrlich himself offered rebuttals to practically all of the vitriol levied against his work, the lasting impression is that Ehrlich’s detractors effectively ‘won the day’ – that is, until a host of recent studies revisited the issue using modern econometric techniques.5 The proverbial adage that ‘history repeats itself’ appears to apply well to the most recent scholarship in the economics of capital punishment and deterrence in that it too has been the target of pointed critiques from economists and other social scientists. Indeed, many of these later studies were accused of suffering from similar (in some instances the same)...

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